Slice of MIT

“Smoot” Enters the Dictionary
by Nancy DuVergne Smith on November 22, 2011
in Alumni Life,Campus Culture,Modern Geekhood,Remember When...

Olli Smoot on the Massachusetts Avenue bridgeOlli Smoot '62 on the repainted Massachusetts Avenue bridge  during  the fiftieth anniversity.The Smoot unit of measurement has long been a Google calculation, but now the historic MIT term resides in a more conservative venue—the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary just out in print—and soon to be online.

In a recent NPR commentary, Weekend Edition host Audie Cornish notes that “Smoot” is one of 10,000 new words featured in the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary:

“Smoot: a unit of measurement equal to five feet, seven inches, often cited when discussing the inherent arbitrariness of measurement units; after Oliver Smoot whose height was used as the basis of the measurement.”

Of course MIT folks know more history. MIT celebrated the 50th anniversary of the measuring of then-freshman Ollie Smoot ’62 with Smoot Day on Oct. 4, 2008. Activities ranged from unveiling a plaque on the newly repainted the Harvard Bridge (AKA Mass. Ave. bridge) to parties and a performance by the legendary singing group the Platters. Read more about Smoot’s Legacy.

A Boston Globe article noted that other new words including “upselling,’’ “manboob,’’ “panko,’’ and “vuvuzela.’’ The dictionary, 10 years in the making, comes with free smartphone apps (also available separately) and the entire dictionary will be free online.

Scrabble, anyone?

{ 4 comments… read them below }

Iain Hueton, MIT '84   November 22, 2011 at 5:30 pm

You neglected the most ironic detail about Smoot: that he served as chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Board of Directors January 2001 through December 2002. Before being elected as chairman of the ANSI Board. It’s great to see him (and his “unit of measure”) get recognition.

Richard H Neergaard, MIT '54   November 22, 2011 at 10:52 pm

Smoot mensuration has a history prior to 1961. Here are the facts.

In the fall of 1951, the pledges of Theta Delta Chi were sent out by their upper-class mentors to perform an honored annual ceremony: measuring the Harvard Bridge in Judge Lowell lengths (the persona of the Judge being represented variously by an eel or a cod). The pledges, taken by the spirit of the tradition, were inspired to embellish: they substituted one of their own, Perry Raeburn Smoot, ’54, for Judge Lowell as the unit of mensuration.

But the method was flawed and the bridge ended up being only partially measured. The problem was that in spite of the cold, Perry would bend when lifted by his belt, seriously diminishing accuracy. Supporting chords about the neck and ankles were considered, but rejected as offering no net improvement, inasmuch as there would inevitably be violent shuddering pursuant to strangulation. The effort therefore was, alas, abandoned.

But the ingeniousness of the concept, coupled with the old and honorable Smoot family name, resonated around campus – as it does even yet today. The notion was thus in a viable state of incubation when Lambda Chi Alpha serendipitously came up with its very own Smoot pledge (Oliver Smoot, ’62). Lambda Chi evidently saw their opportunity: they’d do a remake of the enterprise, this time going for the Full Monte. Perhaps they chose a colder night, because they were successful, and the rest is history: their Oliver Smoot mensuration deservedly achieved eternal fame. But Theta Delts of the early ’50′s may modestly claim credit for having invented and inspired this signal accomplishment.

Paul T Robertson, MIT '61   November 22, 2011 at 11:57 pm

I attended MIT from September 1957 through June 1961, graduating at the latter point with a BS in Physics. During that period I walked across the “Mass Ave Bridge” many times (from my on-campus dormitory to, and returning from) mixers at various schools in nearby Boston.

I remember seeing the “Smoot” words from my sophomore year onward. I figured it was some kind of Tech “hack”, but I didn’t know what the details were.

Ironically, a few years later, I worked at Martin Marietta in Middle River, Maryland. What was my focus? I became fairly fluent at many kinds of measurement, while analyzing data from from ground tests, and later, flights of the Gemini Launch Vehicle—the rocket that launched the first US two-man spacecraft. However, never once did I encounter a measurement unit as rare (or as intriguing) as the Smoot.

Amazing to me was the fact that, although I also wrote regularly for THE TECH, the campus newspaper, I do not recall hearing about the event when I was a student. I didn’t learn the back story until many years later when I saw it reported in a press article!

PS:   November 23, 2011 at 12:12 am   For the record, my height is exactly one Smoot.—PTR

Other links:

Frat found measure of pleasure in smoots

At MIT a quirky fete to great ideas “MIT 150’’ also includes a “Smoot stick,’’ a ruler equal in length to the five-foot, seven-inch frame of diminutive Oliver Smoot, who was used by the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity to measure the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge in 1958. (It’s 364.4 Smoots plus one ear, by the way.)